Monday, 30 July 2007

Floods and Trains

The last time I travelled to London by train it was a far from pleasant experience: I had to stand all the way, the carriage was dirty and the journey was delayed by railworks. What should have taken forty minutes took well over an hour and, of course, the train was late in the first place. The return journey was little better. Yesterday, the government announced its plans for the rail network for the next decades. All well and good but who will have to pay....the passengers of course. In our market-oriented economy that should have come as no surprise to anyone. But what's the alternative...presumably the car or other forms of public transport (or should we now be saying private transport as it's clearly no longer owned by 'the public'). Now the double whammy! Rail fares will go up at above inflation for the forseeable future but if car pricing is introduced nationwide (still a major possibility) then drivers will soon be priced off the road. In fact, in the decade I can see driving a car as being almost as unacceptable as smoking! I probably have travelled more by train on the continent in the last few years and there the prices are reasonable, the service generally efficient and safe and the trains modern. If France and Germany can have a cheap rail network, I've often wondered why Britain can't subsidise fares (now that would really get people out of their cars).

The floods justifibly have taken up columns of newsprint and hours of television in the past few weeks though interestingly it didn't take the media as long to latch on to the problems in Gloucester as those in Hull. Is it all to do with global warming? Scientists and other 'experts' appears to be putting the blame on that benighted phenomenon; in fact, any weather than appears not to be the 'norm' is trumpeted as further evidence of the coming cataclysm. But there have always been floods during the summer and it should always be remembered that, despite the hot summers of recent years, that Britain is a wet place. In my my grandmother's family bible, there are dates of important events and under 1912 for August the ominous 'in this month the fens drowned', then there was the 'year with no summer' in 1815 (its cause a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Asia) and there were a series of bad summers in the 1840s, 1910s and 1950s. And all this long before cheap air-flights, a depleted ozone layer and carbon footprints. Flooding in the summer is not as unusual as some people are making out though that's small comfort if your house has been flooded and your possessions destroyed. What is perhaps more worrying is that the flooding of one water treatment work or one electricity sub-station has such devastating consequences.

The vital point about both rail and flood is that they raise fundamental questions about our decaying infrastructure. Whether it's water treatment or sewers or electricity or railways, it appears that they are now approaching saturation point (if you excuse the pun) after decades of neglect. We appear to be very good at tinkering with things to keep them going but are less well disposed to making and paying for the improvements that are essential if the whole system is not inexorably to break down. But then, they're not 'sexy': you don't think about sewers until they break down or water until you don't get it through your taps. You just expect them to be there. Perhaps it is time we stopped playing such a global role and embarking on foreign 'adventures' of dubious legality and focussed our attention rather more on improving the quality of life for our own citizens.

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